Edmund Dulac Arabian Nights

Edmund Dulac
Episode from The Arabian Nights 1914
Lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum

Edmund Dulac, Episode from The Arabian Nights 1914

This pencil and watercolour illustration of a scene from ‘Sinbad the Sailor and other Stories from the Arabian Nights’ 1914 reveals the extent to which The Arabian Nights has embedded itself within Western culture. It was produced by Edmund Dulac, a pre-eminent illustrator in Europe, and this example was created for a hugely successful Christmas compendium, one of a series published in London.

By this point the influence of The Arabian Nights upon popular taste extended from the literary to the decorative (it even inspired wallpaper) and was reproduced in numerous editions.

What ideas about ‘the Orient’ does Arabian Nights bring to mind? Are these associations purely fantastical?

Translations of the Nights circulated so widely in Europe and America that to ask about its influence on Western literature is a little like asking about the influence on Western literature of that other great collection of oriental tales, the Bible.

Robert Irwin, historian and writer

The Arabian Nights

First edition in English, from Antoine Galland, 1713
Lent by the British Library

In terms of Western fantasies of ‘the Orient’, Antoine Galland’s version of The Arabian Nights Entertainments is pivotal. The English translation, completed in 1719, has had a profound grip on popular culture, spawning a number of film and book adaptations.

What appears to be an ‘authentic’ compendium of tales is not all it seems. The extent to which Galland created The Arabian Nights is still hotly debated, but it is clear that he selected and fashioned tales from a broad chronological and geographical area, to suit his lurid and fantastical framing narrative. The Arabian Nights defined an idea of ‘Orient’ that would prove enduring.